Civics For Change: The Civil Rights Act Of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is considered the nation’s most important civil rights legislation. This landmark legislation outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, as well as strengthens the enforcement of voting rights and the desegregation of schools. In the midst of one of the largest civil rights movements in our nation’s history, the passage of the Civil Rights Act was met with much resistance. In this blog post, readers will gain a deeper understanding of the history of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the unique role that our namesake Andrew Goodman played in its passage, as well as look into the challenges that still remain in protecting the rights of individuals in our nation.

President John F. Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 following decades of Jim Crow-era intimidation, violence, and injustices resulting in many Americans facing discrimination in daily life and when trying to participate in the democratic process. While the 15th Amendment gave all men the right to vote regardless of race in 1870, lawmakers used tactics like literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation to continue disenfranchising Black citizens. Nonviolent protests were erupting throughout the southern states in an effort to secure federal legislation that would offer legal protections against discrimination. Acting swiftly after police brutally suppressed nonviolent protesters with dogs and firehoses in Birmingham, Alabama, President Kennedy stated: “[The United States] will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.” Tensions were high during the summer of 1964, and the sudden disappearance of three men would serve as a further catalyst for the passage of the much-needed civil rights legislation. 

Freedom Summer of 1964, or the Mississippi Summer Project, brought hundreds of young people together to register Black voters in Mississippi, where only 7% of eligible Black voters were registered to vote in 1962. Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were among the volunteers in Mississippi that summer. On Andy’s first day in Mississippi, the three young men set out to investigate a church that had been bombed, a site originally meant to be a Freedom School. But they never made it to the church. While on their way there, Neshoba County Sheriff Cecil Price arrested the three men and delivered them into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan who murdered all three men simply for advocating for equal rights for all Americans.

Forty-four long days passed before their bodies were found, and in the meantime, their disappearance captured national attention. While federal investigators conducted their search, they found dozens more bodies in the swamps of Mississippi – all of them were Black people who had been murdered by the KKK. This string of tragedies showcased the urgent need for change, ending debates in Congress and acting as a catalyst for civil rights legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Following Kennedy’s assassintion, President Lyndon B. Johnson took on the cause of passing the bill through Congress. The bill was met with resistance and a 75-day filibuster, one of the longest in our nation’s history. The Civil Rights Act was passed and signed into law on July 2, 1964. It banned segregation on the basis of race, religion or national origin at all places of public accommodation, including hotels, restaurants, parks, theaters, courthouses, and sports arenas. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was one step toward creating a nation where its citizens are truly equal, not just in name, but in practice under the law. Yet today, civil rights are being directly violated. Just last month, the Supreme Court sided with a website designer who refused to design for a queer client, citing the religious protection built into the First Amendment in a 6-3 ruling. This sets a troubling precedent for future discrimination cases, signaling how our nation is still healing from the divides caused by white supremacy and homophobia, and how we must continue to take action to maintain our rights that were written into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 came shortly thereafter the Civil Rights Act, and outlawed racial discrimination, including putting an end to poll taxes, literacy tests, and other Jim Crow-era means of determining eligibility for voting. Nearly sixty years later, unfortunately, there are still barriers in place keeping people from voting. Due to court debt, felony convictions, fees associated with obtaining an ID, lack of transportation, or inaccessibility from polling locations or their hours of operation, many eligible voters are kept from casting a ballot. 

The Freedom To Vote Act, re-introduced to Congress last week, aims to reduce many of the barriers folks may face in voting. By making Election Day a public holiday, altering voter ID requirements, restoring the vote for those who have served their time, and requiring early voting and automatic voter registration in all states, this bill could allow innumerable citizens to become voters. 2024 is getting closer by the day – click here to take action by contacting your U.S. Senators and asking them to greatly expand the freedom to vote!


Mia Matthews is the Program and Communications Manager at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. In her position, she works with student leaders and in communications and storytelling surrounding their work. She currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts.